Is This The Future Of Airport Lounges (For Now)?

Filed Under: Travel

While it’s hardly the most important development in the airline industry right now, I still think it’s an interesting topic that’s worth discussing.

How will airport lounges change due to COVID-19?

I saw a story a couple of days ago about how Royal Caribbean will eliminate traditional buffets once cruising resumes. Cruise ships without buffets? Can it even be considered a cruise at that point?!?

Similarly, I think it’s safe to assume that airport lounges will have to modify their self serve food and beverage options, at least while this pandemic continues to be a thing impacting our daily lives (which is likely to be the case for a long time).

The directions that airport lounges could go

The way I see it, there are four ways that airline lounges that typically use buffets for food & drink service could change in this new era.

United Polaris Lounge buffet

I’d say they’re as follows, ranked from the option that requires least effort to the option that requires most effort:

  • We’ve seen a lot of lounges emphasize fresh food, but we could see a shift back to packaged snacks, like cookies, chips, etc.
  • We could continue to see buffets, but each item is individually portioned and covered, so that you’re not serving yourself from a “shared” tray
  • We could see lounge attendants roaming to provide service, so that there’s no longer a self serve option
  • We could see more a la carte dining in premium lounges

For the first two options, I wonder if that would be considered “safe?” While no one else can touch the food you’re going to eat, they can touch the containers or packages you’re eating out of, and that seems to come with some risk.

I think that last option is an especially interesting one. Some of the best business and first class lounges offer proper a la carte dining. My expectation is that airlines will do a significant amount of cost cutting in the coming years, though I actually think we could see some more investments in a la carte dining in lounges.

For example, United Polaris Lounges are known for offering a la carte dining. My initial thought was that I could see United cutting this because I think we’ll see a lot of cost cutting, but then in light of the current pandemic I think this might just have to be emphasized more than ever before.

United Polaris Lounge a la carte dining

United Polaris Lounge a la carte dining

Could we see new lounge access restrictions?

With a focus on social distancing, including while sitting, could we see airlines use this as a convenient excuse to add further restrictions on lounge access?

Some lounges are so crowded that every seat is taken, so I assume we could see capacity reduced. Will this be taken care of just by reduced demand for travel, or will we see more?

No social distancing in this Lufthansa lounge

This lounge gives us a hint of the future

As noted by Head for Points, the Aspire Lounge Zurich has just reopened. Aspire operates lounges all over the place, and they’ve outlined how service in the lounge will be changing going forward:

  • The lounge will have reduced capacity so that they can have six feet of physical distancing between tables and seating areas throughout the lounge
  • There will be a maximum of two guests per table
  • All employees will be wearing personal protective equipment, including gloves and a face mask
  • Staff levels will be reduced to avoid crowding
  • A new and more frequent cleaning schedule will be introduced
  • There will be no buffet service, as all food and beverage offerings will be served from a waiter via an aircraft meal trolley until further notice
  • Drinks will include water, juice, soft drinks, coffee, tea, red wine, white wine, gin & tonic, and whiskey (ironic that they show a picture of champagne, even though that’s not on the menu)
  • Cold snacks will include mini-sandwiches, mini-appetizer, vegetables dip, and a selection of sweets; they’ll be well packed and protected

Aspire Lounge employees will wear PPE

Aspire Lounge service will be via aircraft trolleys

Bottom line

It’s probably going to be a new era when it comes to service in airport lounges. Don’t expect any traditional buffets until this pandemic is over (at the earliest).

Personally I suspect many lounges will switch to packaged snacks and buffets with individually portioned dishes, with supervision from a lounge attendant. Then I think we’ll also see some lounges adapt to the Aspire Lounge concept, where all service is via a trolley. I suppose this system can be good or bad depending on how you look at it.

It would be nice if we saw more lounges adopt proper a la carte dining, but that seems unlikely at this point, as airlines look to cut costs.

What are you expecting from airline lounge offerings going forward?

  1. I hope they will still serve salmon for you lucky!

    I suspect they’ll use this as an excuse to cut costs, also I see lounge access being restricting to customers actually flying in premium cabins rather than through status and credit cards to reduce the numbers.

  2. I like the photo of the lady wearing a mask and gloves holding the champagne bottle against the lip of the glass, let’s hope this is a new glass.

  3. I’m not convinced about the use of gloves: just how is it protective of guests? It might afford some benefit to the wearer, but not to anyone else…and particularly so If the worker is clearing tables as well as serving food and drink: I’ve seen it in hotel restaurants just before they closed down….clearing one minute, serving the next, with the same gloves. Filthy. There must be a clear division of tasks if that’s to be the model
    I won’t be totally sad to see the end of buffets: grotty, grubby guests ( mostly of a certain younger age demographic) sampling the goods while standing at the counter, hand to mouth and back to the food. Age restrictions could work but might be viewed as discrimination….and, to be fair, it’s only a minority.

  4. I was just in the Aspire lounge ZRH in mid-March, let’s just hope their famous candy bowl gets moved to the roaming cart.

  5. @daninMCI

    I suspect that “new glass every pour” is going to be the rule. It has been in many bars/restaurants/lounges, etc for a long time before this. High capacity venues sometimes run out of glassware on extremely busy occasions if they aren’t managed properly or well prepared.

    I suspect with stricter restrictions on entry this would not be so much of a problem with airport lounges, however. I honestly hope that stricter entry requirements will be in order for many lounges in the future given how overcrowded so many of them have become.

    I wonder if they’ll introduce some kind of sanitised pick-up window where people place orders… ouch. Akin to a drive-thru but a walk-up situation. Hopefully not in a premium lounge. Perhaps in the airport terminal though…

  6. I hope to see more a la carte dining at lounges. As for restrictions go, I’m not sure if that’s needed given the small amount of people travelling the next few months (probably at best only 20%-30% capacity?) before a vaccine comes out.

  7. I can see two big problems. Limiting a table to two isn’t going to work if three people are traveling together. If four are traveling together, they can split into two groups of two, but are they really going to make a group of three split across two tables?

    The bigger problem is how they limit admission to the lounge. If they exclude everyone not flying business class or above, the excluded customers will vent their wrath at the airlines (if they have elite status but are flying in economy) or at the banks (If they paid a high annual fee for their credit card just so they could get into lounges).

  8. I could see some lounges having a live chef station or something where an employee plates certain dishes for you. I’m specifically talking about main dishes and sides such as serving cooked salmon, pasta, beans, vegetables, etc. I could see this concept in Skyclubs, Flagship and most likely Centurion lounges (if they don’t go with waiter service).

  9. The science of COVID-19 and buffets is pretty clear: you are unlikely to transmit the virus via the food if everyone is wearing a mask; it’s the shared utensils – tongs, serving spoons, self-serve plates – that are the problem area, where multiple hands touch the same surface.

  10. It seemed to me buffets were particularly wasteful in lounges. The a lounge could easily cut food costs by preparing only what is ordered. The question then becomes whether you need additional staff to support this, either in the kitchen or on the floor.

  11. The offering of the Zurich Aspire lounge is tailored to the restrictions Swiss government imposed on restaurants when re-opening. The only difference seems to be that restaurants are allow a maximum of 4 pax per table, and Aspire allows only 2. I imagine this because they can legally accomodate more people like this, as compared to a solo traveller occupying a table for four.

    As regards your comment about champagne/prosecco, @Lucky: Before COVID, the Zurich Aspire lounge at B/D gates had three sections, two for business class and one very small for AF First Class. Only the AF F section served proper champagne, one of the J sections (the one for BA, IB, etc.) served Prosecco, the third one no bubbly. Perhaps it is related to this.

  12. @Paolo, unless you change gloves after every interaction (like a doctor) they’re useless. And if they inhibit hand washing, they’re worse than useless.

  13. I’m sure many lounges would take on the Centurion style restrictions of 3 hours prior to your flight. For really high end lounges that see a lot of traffic like Polaris, Cathay, Qatar they might have to also limit the time you’re in there. I wouldn’t be shocked to see something like 3 hours prior to departure but you’re only allowed 1 hour. Here’s your buzzer, once it goes off it needs to be returned and then you’re on your way out. I also think showers and sleep rooms are a thing of the past for a very long time to come. Either way I’m not looking forward to what they’ll be like in the next few months.

  14. Won’t be crying salted tears losing the vast majority of lounge buffets
    Americans Flagship Lounges in particular are disgusting with a massive variety of cheap disgusting low class slop they call food.I do think it was presented nicely though
    I would always go out and dine before heading to the airport
    Seeing it made me sick.Canned soup is better than what was being served
    Before Flagship Dining it was just mediocre now it’s just downright disgusting I’d rather dine at Sizzler .Good riddance
    At least they were consistent horrible in the lounge and onboard
    I would just give up and serve high quality sandwiches soups etc salad brought to the table
    But even then it will likely be worse than Subway

  15. If we were at all worried about the “risk” of travel then the least of our concerns should be the shared tongs, trays, etc.
    Sitting with people eating in an enclosed space without masks is more of a risk than the transfer of viral material which may or may not be infectious.
    I just feel we’re losing a bit of perspective…if you decide to travel then you’ve decided to put up with a non-neglible level of risk. To then worry about whether someone touched a tray or a serving spoon before you…just stay home and run all your delivery packages under a UV lamp.

  16. I think one of the simplest and most cost effective solutions would be like what the Centurion Lounge DFW implemented before closing: Just have one attendant at each buffet station that will prepare a plate for you based on your wishes.

  17. I think we’ll see airlines go down the pre-packaged route for snacks. I can’t see an expansion in a la carte options being something that airlines will favour at a time when they’re radically cutting costs.

    I think we’ll see the most significant changes around distancing and capacity. I would expect, at least in the short term, no guests allowed in and a time limit placed on entry before a flight.

  18. Buffets were always a problem prior to COVID; as a frequent traveller I saw many people with disgusting habits including touching items directly then not taking them, heaving giant portions onto plates like pigs, and general sloppy hygiene like touching their cell phone then picking up shared utensils (gross). Attendants should simply hand out a preportioned amount from behind a plexiglass barrier.
    What about this nonsense of only serving water on a flight (in business/first even!). You can’t tell me that a can of beer or Soda is worse. The airlines will use the pandemic as an excuse to cut service offerings even on premium tickets-paying thousands for what? Besides a lay flat seat almost no advantages

  19. Human are a creature of habits, in no time will this pandemic become a seasonal flu and we will go back to pre corona virus. Everything is cost driven, it was the cheapest formula before and will be in the future. We have never had a successful vaccine for any form of mutating virus and never will just like Sars MERS and influenza.

  20. When I was at the Centurion Lounge in Miami in mid-March, they cordoned off the buffet area and had one person serving people. At the Pier business lounges in HK, the “buffet” spread is behind glass with someone to serve you.

    I think that’s a totally fine way to do it as well, so long as the lounge isn’t that crowded

  21. I was re-reading one of your hotel reviews yesterday, and it brought up the question: What about all those breakfast buffets at hotels?
    Like others have noted, it is possible to have the buffet if the staff is available to plate and serve what you would like. I was one of those folks floating on a cruise ship for a couple weeks in March, waiting to find a port that would accept us. Buffets were open, but no guest touched anything other than their own plate. I liked it better than the traditional help yourself system.

  22. I don’t really care about dining changes, that’s not how the majority of infections occur. What are they doing with their HVAC systems? Are they opening up outdoor spaces when possible? If you’re sitting downwind from someone shedding virus every time they open their unmasked mouth you have a much higher chance of being infected than if you share a pair of tongs with them.

  23. I would expect that lounge access by status will be limited to top-tier elites, but credit card access will continue, as my understanding has been that non-cobrands (Priority Pass and Amex, e.g.) pay a nontrivial amount per visit, while cobrands generate annual fee revenue.

  24. To the cutting costs point, it seems like if an airline was more strategic that they would invest in the lounge experience (e.g., more dine on demand) for premium passengers to win over new customers when they start flying again.

  25. I think that we just have to wait until things normalize. Some of what you discuss is even more “protective” than the situation currently in China…

  26. I think we will see major renegotiation by airlines with airport authority’s over their lounge and flight side service footage.
    It may be negotiated with the new gate and ground service agreements or it may be negotiated stand alone.
    Some carriers will be willing to close entirely , the leased spaces they have under current contract if authorities are unwilling to reconsider and modify current leases. It would be in the best interest of terminal operators to consider new terms for the next four to six quarters. Airport retail interests are a huge unknown at this point and on the chopping block in all tier markets . Several large vehicle rental firms have put certain airport authorities on notice to drastically reduced footage and services needed.

  27. IMO restricting lounge pass/credit card holders’ lounge access can be helpful for crowded lounges.

  28. I see that some travellers are giving a lot value to Vodka, Vine and other similar drinks. Why ? Can there be no travelling without such drinks ? One should opt for fresh juices and other soft drinks which are healthy.

  29. I’m expecting airlines to use this as an excuse to cheapen and reduce service and what is offered… Then leave it that way.

    Does champagne cause COVID-19 Aspire Lounges?

  30. Right now , BA long-haul flights ( HK/London ) are serving the same food in Economy ,Business and First due to virus . But fare have not changed . And no alcohol at all . Why would anyone fly business in this scenario ? Waste of money .

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